Why a Lawsuit Against Torture Lawyer John Yoo Might Actually Lead to Accountability

Human Rights

This jumped past me last week, but a federal judge ordered John Yoo to testify in a case filed by Jose Padilla, who was held in a Navy brig for years and slowly driven insane under the enemy combatant policies of the last regime. Ady Barkan thinks this could actually provide some accountability.


In 2002, Justice Department lawyer John Yoo wrote a memo recommending that Jose Padilla, arrested in Chicago in the wake of 9/11 and held on suspicion of plotting a dirty-bomb attack, be classified as an enemy combatant. Yoo also wrote memos arguing that American law does not prevent the president from ordering such enemy combatants tortured. This January, after enduring years of abuse in prison, Padilla sued Yoo for violating his constitutional rights.

And a week ago, Judge Jeffrey White ruled that Padilla's allegations were plausible enough to justify denying Yoo's motion to dismiss the lawsuit. White was appointed by George W. Bush the year Yoo was writing his memos.

White's decision is the first of its kind: Until now, although other lawsuits have been brought, no government official has faced personal liability for his role in the torture or deaths of detainees. But it probably won't be the last. These cases are just beginning to address the fraught questions of justice that have emerged in the aftermath of the Bush era -- what atrocities were committed in the name of national security, who bears responsibility, and how should they be punished? Although neither the Obama administration nor most members of Congress want to deal with these questions directly, they're even more opposed to letting judges (and juries) take a crack at them. Padilla v. Yoo is an example of a surprising development: a conservative judge putting pressure on the Democrats in Washington to create some system of accountability for the Bush administration. It could help spawn more such rulings.

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